Have Your Pi and Eat it Too: The Case for Math Connections in Reading Class

Patrick is a second-year graduate student in Cognitive Psychology. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2010 with a BBA in Finance and Political Science. He then earned his M.Ed. through the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) Teaching Fellows Program, while concurrently teaching middle school math and social studies in Savannah, Georgia. Before beginning graduate school, Patrick worked as an Associate Director of Academics for the ACE Teaching Fellows program. His research interests are in the areas of children's cognitive development and K-12 mathematics education with a particular focus on how children develop mathematical concepts and how students construct problem-solving strategies.



Happy Pi Day! Today, March 14th (or 3/14 in the US), marks our annual celebration of my favorite mathematical constant. Besides being an excuse to enjoy your favorite strawberry rhubarb pie in math class, today also gives us a chance to appreciate the infinite beauty of mathematics all around us. No matter the circle you encounter, including that perfectly made rhubarb pie, the ratio of it's circumference to its diameter will always be 3.1415926535.... Amazing!


Now you may be asking yourself what any of this has to do with literacy education. Pi Day is something you celebrate in a Math class, right? Maybe this blog was supposed to be written for the STEM Center instead? In celebration of Pi Day, we want to highlight the many ways math and literacy intersect in our current culture, and what we as teachers can do to bring that connection to life for students.


Building Quantitative Literacy with our Students

When brainstorming connections between math and literacy, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the infamous word problem.


Ubiquitous in all math classrooms, hearing a traditional word problem usually conjures some visceral fear even years after K-12 education. Of course, part of the difficulty of word problems is that students must be good readers to successfully respond to them. This is probably the most obvious connection between math and literacy. But, I argue that we can go beyond simply teaching children close reading skills in English and hoping that they use those skills in Math class. I believe we can strive for even more – our students can benefit immensely when our reading instruction explicitly connects to mathematical concepts.


Quantitative literacy, or numeracy, is "the ability to understand and interpret numerical information"(Michigan State University). In the same way that reading prepares our students to become responsible, informed citizens, quantitative literacy helps people better navigate their world. Quantitatively literate people are able to make sense of the numbers we encounter every day – from recipes, speed limits, and medications to the more complex information in the graphs, charts, and statistics of a public policy document. Being quantitatively literate has never been more important than it is in today's "age of information.


Furthermore, understanding math and numbers can help students better comprehend what they read. For example, if a high school student is reading Elie Wiesel's Night, she will better understand the horrifying scale of the Holocaust if she knows that more than eleven million people suffered a similar torture to Wiesel. If a middle schooler is reading A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, he will need to understand how far 1600 kilometers is so that he can imagine how terrifying it would be for the four-year-old narrator to accidentally have traveled that far from home. A quantitatively literate student is not only better prepared to navigate everyday numbers, but she is also better prepared to comprehend what she reads.


So what can we do to help our students become quantitatively literate? How can we incorporate a math connection into our English classrooms without too much time or effort? Most importantly, we can simply talk about numbers in classes outside of math. Having high-quality conversations about numbers is one of the best ways to help our students make sense of them.


So, we can embrace the math our students encounter in their favorite stories. What does it mean that the Lilliputians are proportional to Gulliver, yet only 6 inches tall? Why is Platform 9 ¾ such a magical idea? What sort of calculations did Katherine Johnson master in order to send an astronaut safely to space? What is the statistical probability of winning a golden ticket to Wonka's factory? How far is ten thousand leagues under the sea?


If you're reading The Hate U Give, Dear Martin, or other books with social justice themes, use data from the Census Bureau, 538, or NYTimes Upshot to help your students connect data to societal issues such as income inequality, segregation, and neighborhood disparities. In social studies classes, we can discuss polling results, what a margin of error really means, and how this has anything to do with a needle. By intentionally talking about the math we see and not shying away from it, we can help our students more fully engage with the numerical information around them and become quantitatively literate citizens.


Be sure to enjoy a slice or two of pie (French Silk is my personal favorite) today! And when you do, take a moment to appreciate this infinitely awesome number!


Happy Reading,